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The Formation of the Political Elite in Modern Iraq: The U.S. and Iranian Factors

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Three major events transformed Iraq and the Middle East: the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Iran–Iraq War of 1980–1988 and the Gulf War of 1991, the latter of which led to a change in the domestic policy of President of Iraq Saddam Hussein and thus brought about new dynamics in the relations between the Iraqi government and the country’s ethnoreligious groups (mainly the Shiites and the Kurds). Iraq was under an embargo imposed by the United Nations at the time, which limited access to resource distribution for a part of the elite and, combined with the government’s practices that marginalized a part of the population, led many to flee the country, strengthening the opposition forces in exile. The United States used both economic and military tools to exert pressure on Baghdad. The U.S. military tactics destroyed Iraq’s infrastructure and undermined the stable operation of government agencies in the country.

The U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003 allowed the American side to exert multifactor influence on the formation of a new elite. Even the technical implementation of the voting process, not to mention the principles of the new Constitution, were dependent on the United States. But the United States had directed the political process in Iraq even before the country adopted its new Constitution in 2005 by creating two key bodies: the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC). On June 9, 2004, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 1546 that endorsed “a sovereign Interim Government of Iraq” and a “timetable for Iraq’s political transition to democratic government.” [1]

The 2005 election urged forward by the United States established a new political elite that received international recognition but limited legitimacy at home. Since the election was held in a very difficult environment and was boycotted by a large share of the Sunni population, just how representative it exactly was has been called into question.

Following its own logic in relations with Iraq and being embedded in the regional context, Iran decided to use the levers already at its disposal to influence the Iraqi political process and shape a favourable political elite in the country. In fact, this process began long before the U.S. invasion, because movements opposing Saddam Hussein had already been formed and their leaders often lived in Iran. Despite the fact that most religious and political movements in Iraq can trace their origins back to the 1950s or 1960s, as the Islamic Dawa Party, which has become the most formidable opponent of the Iraqi authorities, actually developed during the Iran–Iraq War of 1980–1988. The leaders of Dawa, who were in exile, mostly lived in Iran.

Starting in the 1980s and especially in the 1990s, the exiled opposition was increasingly influenced and dominated by Kurdish ethnocentric and Shia faith-based political forces. Opposition figures that aspired to keep the vision of Iraqi nationalism homogenous and centralized increasingly gave way to political forces driven by an ethnoreligious agenda [2]. Depending on the political situation, Iran continued to lend limited support to various Kurdish forces opposing the central authorities in Iraq.

After 2003, Shia political forces sought to form coalitions, a key example of which was the alliance between the Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which was founded in 1982 and had engaged in close cooperation with the United States even before 2003. The key constituency for SCIRI was Iraqis of Iranian origin and the Marsh Arabs that migrated to Iran at times of crisis. Baghdad has always seen these population groups as untrustworthy [3]. SCIRI was headed by representatives of the country’s religious elite – the well-known Hakim family of Shia religious scholars. Support from Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani consolidated the position of Dawa and SCIRI in post-Saddam Iraq.

After the United States occupied Iraq, the young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr from the influential Sadr family called his supporters to take up arms against the occupants. His followers formed the Mahdi Army that killed hundreds of American soldiers. The Sadrist Movement attained considerable influence in parliament and represented Shia communities from south and central Iraq, the Marsh Arabs and the Baghdad district of Sadr City (named after Muqtada al-Sadr’s father, Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, who opposed the regime and suffered at its hands) [4]. The Sadrists’ military wing retained considerable influence over the state security system.

Despite having some political clout and a few ministerial posts, the Sunnis found themselves marginalized in the new situation and did not have influence over the decision-making process in Baghdad as the case for, for example, the Nujaifi clan from Mosul. The main forces opposing the United States and the central government in Baghdad were the Naqshbandi Army (which had ties to the former Ba’ath Party) and Al Qaeda in Iraq [5]. Attempts to inject Sunni groups (the Sahwa or the Al-Iraqiya movements, which also included Sunnis) into the political elite were generally unsuccessful.

The ongoing marginalization of the Sunni population by the Nouri al-Maliki government and the radicalization of society, compounded by falling oil prices and the war in Syria, led to the establishment of an alliance of various groups in 2014. That alliance became known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS (a terrorist organization that is banned in Russia). The new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who assumed the post in 2014 and represented the Dawa Party, decided not only to fight ISIS, but also to carry out some reforms. His efforts were greatly facilitated by the positions of Tehran and Washington, which have tacitly supported Abadi’s initiatives to form a technocratic government to fight corruption since 2016.

By jeopardizing the patron-client relationship and the distribution of wealth enjoyed by the old Iraqi establishment, al-Abadi fell into disfavour with many, including members of his former party Dawa. As a result, many wanted to oust him from the post of Prime Minister. But Iran and the United States put pressure on their partners within Iraq to prevent that from happening. This led to a reconfiguration of political forces in 2018 that nevertheless preserved the same elite.

The training of new security forces in Iraq by American experts, including in U.S. training camps effectively amounted to training various militias or groups linked with militants from the Badr Organization and the Mahdi Army. For them, collaboration with the United States was a matter of pragmatism, since everyone realized that Washington would play a defining role in the future federative Iraq. At the same time, the Shiites, who had become the dominant group in Iraq, were looking to the Iranian model of governance.

The formation of the new political elite in Iraq and the country’s security forces was thus directly dependent on the presence of U.S. occupation forces, the policies of Iran and Iran’s ties with movements opposing Saddam Hussein. The dominant Shia political groups proved to be very diverse and heterogenous, with different political interests and a strong radical influence.

The 2018 Election Results in Iraq: The U.S. and Iranian Trace

Stopping ISIS was the main objective for the Iraqi Army. But achieving a national conciliation between the political forces proved to be a key condition for the country where Sunni interests were deeply embedded in the power structure. The “Kurdish issue” also popped up on the agenda. The independence referendum held by the Kurds in territories controlled by Erbil in September 2017 put Baghdad and Prime Minister al-Abadi personally in an awkward position before the 2018 election and lent strength to their political opponents.

Similar to the fight against ISIS, the United States and Iran sided with the central government. This led Baghdad to carry out a military operation to restore sovereignty and even regain control over the rich oil fields of Kirkuk. This loss for Kurds – meaning a failure of the referendum – revealed a rift between the two major forces of Iraqi Kurdistan: the Barzani and Talabani clans (the latter was experiencing division itself after the death of former President of Iraq Jalal Talabani). However, this heralded a new stage in the consolidation of power of the central government and even a rise in nationalist sentiment.

A critical event that happened even before the 2018 election was the split within the State of Law Coalition and the Dawa Party, which had been in power since the U.S. invasion of 2003. Most of the seats in parliament were won by the Saairun coalition (also known as Marching Towards Reform), giving it the upper hand in forming the government. The coalition was headed by the leader of the Sadrist Movement, Muqtada al-Sadr, who is an extremely influential religious figure. However, this did not prevent his movement from using a nationalist and anti-corruption agenda as a platform. However, the Fatah Alliance (sometimes translated as the Conquest Alliance), a coalition that had been accused of ties with Iran on numerous occasions, finished a close second to the Sadrists, winning almost as many seats in parliament. The Fatah Alliance is believed to have been supported by the Popular Mobilization Forces (al-Hashd al-Shaabi) formed in 2014 to fight ISIS. However, none of the abovementioned parties won a majority in parliament. It was clear that even the most prominent players would have to negotiate a compromise with each other, as well as with less influential forces.

It was more than three months before the new parliament met in early September 2018. The political process stalled as thousands of people took to the streets for rallies and demonstrations, with the biggest protests taking place in Basra. The political forces eventually had to find common ground and start forming a government. Again, it was the intervention of Marja Ali al-Sistani that became the catalyst for agreement.

The first step that signalled the redistribution of power was the election of Chairman of the Council of Representatives (Parliament) of Iraq. On September 15, 2018, the 37-year-old member of parliament from the province of Anbar and member of the Al-Hal (“Solution”) party Mohamed al-Halbousi was elected by a majority (with 167 votes) as the Speaker of the national parliament. Hassan Karim from Saairun took the post of First Deputy Speaker. He garnered an even larger majority than the speaker, receiving 210 votes. On the whole, al-Halbousi can be considered a compromise figure both for Iran and the United States. His first visit, however, was to Kuwait, which hosted the International Conference for Reconstruction of Iraq early that year. This suggests that the new speaker is counting on the support of the Gulf monarchies and intends to focus on reconstructing the country after the war.

The next step was the election of the president and prime minister. The presidential post had been traditionally held by a representative of one of the largest Kurdish political forces, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Despite the presence of several other candidates on the list, the most likely was former Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq, Barham Salih, considered to be pro-American. Salih was not running as a single candidate for Kurds, as had been the practice since 2003. The very return of Salih to the PUK (he had quit the Union just before the election to form his own party) and the support he received as a presidential candidate were predictable.

But the Iraq Kurds could not agree on a single candidate for president, which, again, exposed a division among the elites. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (Barzani clan, Erbil) nominated Fuad Hussein, the former President of Kurdistan Region. Evidently, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah reached a last-minute agreement on the distribution of power at the federal and regional levels. Barham Salih ultimately became President, and Fuad Hussein became Minister of Finance.

The Prime Minister and his cabinet are a key junction in the power architecture of Iraq, and it was this point that became the focus of struggle. All parties had to trade concessions and search for compromise. A way out of the deadlock was ultimately found, and the solution was not in favour of Prime Minister al-Abadi. Several days before the election it was clear that the pendulum had swung in favour of former Minister of Oil and Vice President of Iraq Adil Abdul-Mahdi.

The country continued to be run based on the quota principle of Muhasasa Ta’ifia, with a member of the Kurdish community as president, a Sunnite as a parliament speaker and a Shiite as prime minister. In reality, the system that had been established remains essential for Iraq. External forces, both in Iran and the United States, continue to work with Shiite political and military groups. They remain an organized force and are viewed as the basis for security and statehood, just as they were before the 2018 elections.

U.S.–Iran Relations under Donald Trump and Challenges for Iraq’s Political Elite

Iraq has traditionally been influenced by the dynamics of U.S.–Iran relations. The signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 reduced friction between the United States and Iran, strengthened pragmatic groups within the Islamic Republic, and created relatively favourable conditions for stabilization both in the region and in the Iraqi domestic political process. By the end of 2017, Baghdad had regained control of key cities and settlements largely thanks to the efforts of the al-Abadi government to coordinate the assistance of the two opponents and most important players in the region (the United States and Iran) in the fight against ISIS. However, with the defeat of ISIS and the removal of the topic from the global agenda, the United States and Iran no longer had any grounds for further “silent” engagement, so it ceased.

A new round of confrontation began following the arrival of the Donald Trump administration in 2018 and the withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA in May 2018, which put Iraq in an uncomfortable position. The U.S. sanctions against Iran that followed Trump’s decision caused serious damage to the country’s economy and endangered any agreements between Tehran and third countries due to the extraterritorial nature of the sanctions. For example, under the threat of sanctions, the French concern Total withdrew from the largest project to develop the South Pars oil and gas field by selling its stake to the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC).

Large-scale U.S. sanctions against Iran could cause serious damage to Iraq due to the interdependence of the economies of these neighbouring countries. Iraqi representatives have held regular meetings with members of the U.S. administration, stressing the need for the country to cooperate with Iran. Baghdad has been able to secure several deferrals, and Washington has exempted Iraq from the sanctions regime (for 90 days each time).

Iran continues to be a vital source of electricity for Iraq. However, even though there is a need to replace Iranian oil on the world market – and Washington is working on this task – there is an increasing role for Iraqi oil in it. If the American side decides to stick to its policies, then it can also impose sanctions against Iraq, which will lead to increased risks and instability.

Constant pressure on Tehran did not lead to a revision of the “Iran deal,” which is what President Trump initially wanted. In such circumstances, Iran could have set about escalating regional affairs. In this case, it had the tools to undermine U.S. interests in the Middle East and, of course, in Iraq. For a long time, Major General and Commander of the Quds Force within the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) of Iran, Qasem Soleimani, was considered the key coordinator of Iranian actions in Iraq. He is credited with many of the achievements of Iranian politics in Iraq, including the agreement on the results of the elections and nullifying the results of the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2017.

Iran demonstrated particular care and accuracy in establishing its influence on the Iraqi political process after the Iraqi elections in 2018. During their visits to Iraq in 2019, both Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iran Mohammad Javad Zarif and President of Iran Hassan Rouhani held meetings with almost all political leaders and public figures over the course of several days. Unlike the Iranian side, U.S. representatives usually arrived with unplanned visits. On one such occasion, Donald Trump personally flew to Iraq to visit an American base, where he met with soldiers. The trip did not include meetings with any leaders of the variegated Iraqi political spectrum.

Iraq’s foreign policy as a whole became more balanced after the formation of the new government, where Mohamed Ali Alhakim stood at the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Iraq prefers to have several points of reference to help it pursue its course. For example, while visiting Moscow, Alhakim outlined Iraq’s principled position on the return of Syria to the Arab League, a policy which runs counter to the U.S. agenda in the region. At the same time, Baghdad has its own interests, namely, to ensure security on the Syria–Iraq border. In addition to cooperating with the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Iraq interacts with Iran, Russia and Syria within the framework of the Baghdad information and coordination centre. At the regional level, Iraq seeks to become a platform for dialogue between various regional and global actors [7].

Since 2003, the United States and Iran have gained serious influence on the formation of the Iraqi elite. The new Iraqi elite, as well as its individual parts, has been influenced by the policies of Iran and the United States and the dynamics of their relations. Many politicians who came to power in Iraq after 2003 were previously in opposition and lived in exile. Part of this future elite has made a choice in favour of the West, while a much larger part has chosen Iran. After the 2018 elections in Iraq, the processes of distributing power and determining the degree of influence of external players continued.

It became increasingly clear that the elements of Iraqi politics that had become traditional since 2003 had been preserved. The political forces that had established themselves at that time and the external players supporting them – the United States and Iran – continue to perpetuate this system. At the same time, there are calls within the country to eliminate the influence of external players in determining the country’s domestic and foreign policy agenda. This, of course, creates opportunities for other countries to pursue their interests, such as the monarchies of the Persian Gulf and Russia, but also makes them adjust their policies regarding the United States and Iran, which have a traditional presence in Iraq.

The unintended symbiosis between Iran and the United States in Iraq, brought about by the similarity of their interests in this country, is gradually being lost as the fight against ISIS fades into the background. Notwithstanding the fact that the 2018 elections and the escalation of tensions between the United States and Iran created a new configuration of forces, Iraq remains dependent on these external players, and its political elite continues to be based on the Muhasasa Ta’ifia system, approved by the country in 2003. Despite the demand for change that exists in Iraqi society, the current political elite, even though it may sacrifice individual political representatives, will retain its position without any fundamental changes.

1. Sapronova М. А. The Constitution of Iraq in the Past and in the Present. Moscow: Middle East Institute, 2005, p. 84.

2. Hashemi N., Postel D. Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017, p. 117.

3. Minyazhetdinov I. K. The Balkanization of Iraq: The Factors of Reproduction and the Spread of Political Violence // Conflicts and Wars of the 21st Century (Middle East and North Africa). Moscow: Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, 2015, p. 263.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Sapronova M.A. Op. Cit, p. 88.

From our partner RIAC

MSc in International Relations, Program Coordinator (MENA) at the Russian International Affairs Council

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Turkish Geopolitics and the Kabul Airport Saga

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Image credit: Hurriyet daily news

The Taliban’s ultimate agreement to a prominent Turkish security presence at Afghanistan’s only airport completes an important power-play for the latter. Ankara wishes to establish itself as a dominant player in the post-U.S. withdrawal Afghan affairs, ensuring that the U.S. looks to it as an ideal partner for its future policies in Afghanistan. It is in this context that Turkey having overcome the formerly heated rejections by the Taliban of its proposed role at the airport is highly significant as it portends the closer integration of Afghanistan into familiar Turkish geopolitical agendas.

Turkey’s Afghan power-play and the U.S.

Turkey’s announcement in June of plans to militarily manage the security at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport with U.S. financial support incensed the Taliban.

By not consulting or informing the powerful Islamist group on such a major issue in a post-withdrawal Afghanistan, Turkey signaled its view of the Taliban as inimical non-state actors lacking the stature to act upon the pretext of Afghan sovereignty. Indeed, President Tayyip Erdogan accused the Taliban of the ‘occupation’ of the Afghan territory in response to their warnings that Turkey’s airport plan violated the Doha Accords in terms of the exit of all foreign forces from Afghanistan and that they would harshly react to it.

The Taliban’s near-effortless takeover of Kabul in mid-August seemed to close the chapter on the airport saga, but deadly ISIS bombings near the airport two weeks later forced the new regime to consider external help in filling the Afghan security vacuum.

Consequently, Turkey gained not only an acquiescence from Afghanistan’s strongest faction to its desired role at the airport but also an affirmation of its capacity to face down and override local actors as a foreign power seeking to guide its Afghan initiatives to fruition.

This may appeal strongly to the U.S., which has increased its geoeconomic interests in Afghanistan in parallel with the process of its military disengagement from the country. These interests take the form of large infrastructure trade projects of a regional scale and would benefit if shielded from the whims of domestic Afghan factions that tend to cripple governance and policy implementation. Ankara’s assertive posture during the airport tussle with the Taliban helps it pitch itself to Washington as capable of doing precisely this.

The Central Asia factor

These trade infrastructure projects in Afghanistan aim to develop it as a transit hub for Central Asian trade to extra-regional markets as outlined in the U.S. ‘Strategy for Central Asia 2019-25’. The U.S. affords considerable importance to this strategy both as a means of rebuilding Afghanistan and providing the Central Asian states with new trade routes that do not need to transit the territory of Russia, their former Soviet patron and America’s great-power rival.

Turkey shares the goal of increasing Central Asia’s global connectivity, whilst envisioning itself the natural leader and conduit for the Turkic Central Asian states’ growing socio-economic bonds with the outside world. By acting as a lead-from-the-front partner for the U.S. in the post-withdrawal Afghanistan, Turkey can persuade the U.S. to entrust it with the Afghan leg of the Strategy for Central Asia.

Turkey could then inculcate the progress of its own connectivity projects for Central Asia into the U.S. priorities as a premium of sorts for its services tackling Afghanistan-based risks and hazards to the U.S. Strategy for Central Asia. These Turkish-led projects include the East West Trans-Caspian Middle Corridor (connecting Turkmenistan-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan to Europe via the Caspian Sea-South Caucasus-Turkey route) and its Eastern spur for Afghanistan, the Lapis Lazuli Corridor (connecting northwest Afghanistan via Turkmenistan to the same Caspian Sea-South Caucasus-Turkey route to Europe).

The text of the US Strategy for Central Asia does mention and pledge favourable visa and customs policies for the Lapis Lazuli Corridor, but does not mention the Middle Corridor or Turkey at all. The absence of the latter two key names indicates that U.S. backing for the Lapis Lazuli Corridor likely owed to the simple fact that it directly includes Afghanistan and has already been functional since December 2018. Thus, the U.S. does not formally endorse the East-West connectivity for Central Asia—which Turkey specializes at—under the rubric of its Strategy for Central Asia.

“Senior [Trump] administration officials have expressed support for specific infrastructure projects—such as, notably, Georgia’s deep-water port project in Anaklia—but without having cast them as part of a broader regional agenda,” commented Middle East Institute scholar Dr John Calabrese on the erstwhile Donald Trump administration’s position on the Middle Corridor months before the Strategy on Central Asia’s release.

All this greatly limits the pool of U.S. financial and political support that Turkey could tap into for developing and expanding the Middle Corridor, which is the lynchpin for its push for pan-Turkic leadership. Ankara’s remedy for this problem, however, may lie in gaining the mentioned lead-from-the-front ally status vis-a-vis the U.S. in Afghanistan.

As observed by the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute’s Chairman and Director Frederick Starr and Svante Cornell, the present U.S. approach represents important shifts in the American conceptualization of Afghanistan and Central Asia relative to each other. These are a departure from the long-standing tendency to ‘view Central Asia as an appendix to Afghanistan policy’ and an embrace of Central Asia as a bloc. Both these shifts laid the basis for the U.S. Afghan policy to take its cue from Central Asia’s development. Officially mandating the development of an East-West transport corridor from Central Asia to Europe—in short, Turkey’s Middle Corridor—is the next logical step in this paradigm.

Starr and Cornell, leading proponents in the U.S. policy advocacy community for treating Afghanistan as part of Central Asia, identify the East-West transport corridor as crucial to the Strategy for Central Asia and criticize the document for not mentioning it.

Thus, from its position in Afghanistan, Turkey can orient the inputs it feeds back to its diplomatic and military partners in Washington around the case for the merger of the U.S. Afghanistan and Central Asia policies that Starr and Cornel advocate. The U.S. will expect actionable suggestions from its top consultative partner for Afghanistan to actualize this merger, paving the way for Turkey to impactfully pitch the Middle Corridor as the solution.

This could well become an elusive opening that Turkey has long needed to bridge the chasm between the Middle Corridor’s innate appeal to the U.S. great-power sensitivities underpinning its Central Asia posture and the U.S. seeming disinterest in the corridor. After all, the Middle Corridor bypasses Russia, challenging its monopoly over Central Asia’s trade routes. It also acts as what Starr describes as a ‘Land Suez’ for China to connect to Europe—reducing China’s reliance on transiting Russia for this purpose and offsetting, from Washington’s perspective, the prospect of its two great-power rivals’ geoeconomic priorities aligning too closely.

Subsequent U.S. endorsement of the Middle Corridor would stimulate greater U.S. investment in the mega-project, hitherto limited by the Strategy for Central Asia’s non-mention of East-West connectivity as explored prior.

In addition to this, the Middle Corridor could become an agenda item in multilateral platforms for Central Asia, such as the C5+1, set up by the U.S. with a focus on the Afghan-Central Asian connectivity. This would prop up advocates in Turkic Central Asia for a formal embrace of an Ankara-led Turkic bloc by enabling them to present this as part of the institutionalization of Central Asian affairs as opposed to a pro-Turkish tilt which might alarm Russia, who has a past record of reacting forcefully to external powers engaging in bloc-building in its former Soviet backyard in Eurasia. This will greatly benefit Turkey.

Restoring balance with the West

Afghanistan can arguably bring Turkey’s ideologically-driven desire to carve a Turkic bloc from Central Asia and its more general desire to mitigate the strains in bilateral ties with the U.S. closer together than any other foreign policy file in Ankara.

Linked to Central Asia or not, Afghanistan stands out as a vacuum left by American strategic miscalculations at the regional doorstep of several U.S. rivals. Turkish initiatives, such as the Kabul airport project, clearly designed to preserve U.S. stakes in Afghanistan—at a time when Russia, Iran and China appear poised to capitalize on the U.S. shrinking presence there—can inject fresh credibility into Turkey’s historical image as the West’s Eurasian vanguard.

This will help President Erdogan as he tries to stabilize relations with the U.S. against their list of disputes, from Turkey’s purchase of Russian air defense systems to the U.S. support for Kurdish groups near the Turkish-Syrian border and beyond. Additionally, President Joe Biden faces mounting public and political pressure at home over the rapid collapse of the former U.S.-backed Kabul government in the Taliban’s wake; in this context, Turkey volunteering itself as a new and coherent vehicle for U.S. interests in Afghanistan may prove the very ice-breaker Erdogan needs for his notably bleak relationship with Biden.

However much progress Ankara makes in these endeavours, its headstrong approach and eventual success in securing a role at Kabul’s airport points to strategic clarity and an expectation of Afghanistan’s seamless integration into Turkish geopolitics.

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The Battle for the Soul of Islam: Will the real reformer of the faith stand up?

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Saudi and Emirati efforts to define ‘moderate’ Islam as socially more liberal while being subservient to an autocratic ruler is as much an endeavour to ensure regime survival and bolster aspirations to lead the Muslim world as it is an attempt to fend off challenges rooted in diverse strands of religious ultra-conservatism.

The Saudi and Emirati efforts to garner religious soft power have much in common even though the kingdom and the United Arab Emirates build their respective campaigns on historically different forms of Islam. The two Gulf states are, moreover, rivals in the battle for the soul of Islam, a struggle to define what strand or strands will dominate the faith in the 21st century.

The battle takes on added significance at a time that Middle Eastern rivals are attempting to dial down regional tensions by managing their disputes and conflicts rather than resolving them. The efforts put a greater emphasis on soft power rivalry rather than hard power confrontation often involving proxies.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE propagate a ‘moderate’ Islam on the back of significant social reforms in recent years that preaches absolute obedience to the ruler and relegates the clergy to the status of the ruler’s clerics.

The reforms include Saudi Arabia’s lifting of a ban on women’s driving, enhancing of women’s professional and personal opportunities, curbing the powers of the religious police and introducing Western-style entertainment.

The UAE last November allowed unmarried couples to cohabitate, loosened alcohol restrictions and criminalised “honour killings,” a widely criticised religiously packaged tribal custom that allows a male relative to kill a woman accused of dishonouring her family.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE compete in the Muslim world with Turkish and Iranian Islamist strands of the faith that are laced with nationalism.

The Gulf states’ state-led moderation of religious practices rather than of theology and Muslim jurisprudence is also challenged by some strands of Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam on the basis of which Saudi Arabia was founded.

“Wahhabism has refracted into three broad groups since the early 1990s: a left that has developed a discourse of civic rights, a centre occupying official posts of state (dubbed ‘ulama al-sultan’ or the ruler’s clerics) that has put up some resistance to the loosening of their powers in the social, juridical and media spheres, and a Wahhabi right sympathetic to the jihadist discourse of al-Qaeda and its focus on questions of foreign policy,” said scholar Andrew Hammond.

While Turkey and Iran pose a geopolitical danger, autocratic monarchical rule is more fundamentally threatened by the religious challenge posed by what Mr. Hammond dubs the Wahhabi left and the Wahhabi right as well as Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the only non-state player in the battle for the soul of Islam, that advocates and practices reform of Islamic jurisprudence and unconditionally endorses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The arrests in recent years of Saudi scholars and preachers such as Safar al-HawaliSalman al-Awda, Sulayman al-Duwaish, Ibrahim al-Sakran, and Hasan al-Maliki suggests as much.

Implicitly drawing a distinction with Nahdlatul Ulama, Mr. Hammond argues that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms amount to “defanging Wahhabism not dethroning it.”

The crown prince, since coming to office, has radically cut back on the investment of tens of billions of dollars in the propagation of religious ultra-conservatism across the globe, most effectively in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He has also sought to balance Wahhabism with Saudi ultra-nationalism and shave off the rough social edges of the kingdom’s austere interpretation of the faith. His subjugation of the clergy, and incarceration of adherents of the Wahhabi left and far-right, put an end to a 73-year long power-sharing agreement between the ruling Al-Saud family and the clergy.

The left has entertained concepts of a constitutional rather than an absolute monarchy, called for political liberalisation and civil rights and in some cases endorsed the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled four Arab autocrats.

The Wahhabi left could be joined in challenging the conservative Gulf monarchies and, simultaneously, be challenged by Nahdlatul Ulama once the group expands its activities to target the Muslim world’s grassroots beyond Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country as well as its foremost democracy. In its first outreach to grassroots elsewhere, Nahdlatul Ulama is expected to launch an Arabic-language website before the end of the year that would target the Arab world.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s concept of a humanitarian Islam that embraces principles of tolerance, pluralism, gender equality, secularism and human rights as defined in the Universal Declaration goes considerably further than proposals put forward by Mr. Hammond’s Wahhabi left, perhaps better described as more liberal rather than an ideological left-wing of a fundamentally ultra-conservative movement.

The Indonesian group’s concept of Islam also contrasts starkly with the Saudi and Emirati notion of autocratic religious moderation that involves no theological or jurisprudential reform but uses ‘the ruler’s clergy’ to religiously legitimise repressive rule under which protests, political parties and petitioning of the government are banned and thought is policed.

“The state has strengthened the Wahhabi centre through neutralising the Wahhabi left and right, which have each represented a threat to state authority and legitimacy … As for the civic rights innovations of the Wahhabi left exemplified by al-Awda, it is precisely this discourse that the state wants to shut down,” Mr. Hammond said, referring to the imprisoned cleric.

The track record of proponents of autocratic religious moderation is checkered at best. While the UAE has created a society that is by and large religiously tolerant, neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt, which doesn’t have the wherewithal to fight a soft power battle in the Muslim world but seeks to project itself as a champion of religious tolerance, can make a similar claim.

Prince Mohammed has met Jewish and Evangelical leaders. Mohammed al-Issa, the head of the Muslim World League, long a major vehicle to promote Saudi religious ultra-conservatism, doesn’t miss an opportunity these days to express his solidarity with other faith groups. Yet, non-Muslims remain barred in the kingdom from worshipping publicly or building their own houses of worship.

In Egypt, Patrick George Zaki, a 27-year-old student, lingers in prison since February 2020 on charges of spreading false news and rumours for publishing an article documenting incidents of discrimination against Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.

Mr. Zaki was arrested a year after Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Egypt’s citadel of Islamic learning, signed a Declaration of Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together with Pope Francis during the two men’s visit to the UAE. The declaration advocates religious freedom and pluralism.

By contrast, Nahdlatul Ulama secretary general Yahya Staquf recently told the story of Riyanto in a September 11 speech at Regent University, a bulwark of American Evangelical anti-Muslim sentiment founded by televangelist Pat Robertson. A member of Nahdlatul Ulama’s militia, Riyanto died guarding a church in Java on Christmas Eve when a bomb exploded in his arms as he removed it from a pew.

“To us in Nahdlatul Ulama, Riyanto is a martyr, and we honour his memory every Christmas Eve alongside millions of our Indonesian Christian brothers and sisters,” Mr. Staquf said.

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Middle East

From ‘Decisive Storm’ to Secret Talks: The Journey of Saudi Conquest of Yemen

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In the last days of the spring of 2015, Saudi generals were sitting around a V-shaped table in front of a newly appointed defense minister, dwelling on the answer to the rise of Houthi rebels in Yemen which had critically threatened the security of the southern border. For decades, Saudi Arabia has been known for its wise and cagey foreign policy, often following the lead of Washington, in any regional or global military conflict but this time was different.

When the 29-year-old defense minister, Muhammad bin Salman, ordered, “Send in the F-15s,” it shocked all of them. Despite having spent only eight months heading the armies of the kingdom, he was about to shape an aggressive or rather reckless foreign policy of one of the most resourceful and conservative countries in the world.

The Unresolved Conflict

After six years of war in Yemen, 233,000 lives have been ravaged of which more than 3,000 were children, 3.3 million have been displaced from their homes, 24 million Yemenis are in dire need of humanitarian support, while 16.2 million Yemenis are on the verge of food insecurity. Now, Saudi Arabia is finally looking for a way out.

“We want the guns to fall completely silent,” remarked Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the Saudi foreign minister, in March, laying out the Yemen Peace Initiative. The Houthis rejected the plan as it imparted “nothing new” according to them. “We expected that Saudi Arabia would announce an end to the blockade,” stated the Houthis’ chief negotiator, Mohammad Abdulsalam, to Reuters.

Riyadh had severed diplomatic ties with Tehran in January 2016 after the Saudi embassy was stormed by the protestors angry at the execution of Sheikh Nimr, a top Shia cleric from Saudi Arabia’s eastern province—a region known for being marginalized on the sectarian basis.

Saudi Arabia and Iran held the first official talks, brokered by the Iraqi government, in Baghdad on 9th April. The Baghdad talks canvassed the Yemen conflict as well as the political and economical instability of Lebanon to evaluate whether both countries can reach a common understanding of the situation.

The Zaidiyyah Imamate

Coming to the Yemen conflict, the rugged Yemeni mountains known for their finest coffee growing regions have a thousand-year-long history of the rule of Zaidiyyah imamate carved on them.

The Zaydism Shia sect is rooted in the unsuccessful rebellion of Zayd bin Ali, the grandson of Husayn bin Ali – the direct descendent of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) – against the Umayyad Caliphate in 740AD. Zaidiyyah’s theology differs from Iran’s Twelver Shiism and Ismaili branches in being far more tolerant towards early Islamic caliphs and in set qualifications for an imam to be a ruler.

The Creation of the Yemen Arab Republic

The imamate resisted the Romans and Ottomans to some extent for centuries but a revolution was brewing and the imams provided the catalyst themselves. Amid 1930’s modernism, Yemeni Imam Yahya Hamid al-Din stepped up from his conservative policy of not allowing foreign travel and authorized around forty boys to study abroad. He envisioned them as his “Famous Forty”—leaders of politics, military, and administration.

Until 1959, several hundred boys had gone through advanced studies from Iraq, Egypt, and Europe but they had envisioned something else. They laid the foundation of a progressive republican movement marked with several attempted coups and the assassination of Imam Yahya (1948) till 1962 when the last imam, al-Badr, was deposed by the revolutionary movement. This led to the emergence of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) with Abdullah Sallal as its leader and after that, Yemen was never the same.

Tracing the Root of the Saudi-Yemen Conflict

Al Saud had troubling relations with the imamate since Saudi Arabia had emerged as a kingdom in 1932. “Who is this Bedouin coming to challenge my family’s 900-year rule?” stated Imam Yahya once, which erupted the 1934 war between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and ended up in the Treaty of Taif. The treaty demarcated the border and granted Jizan, Asir, and Najran to Saudi Arabia after the kingdom’s victory.

The Saudis then cultivated alliances within the bordering Yemeni tribes to erect a makeshift buffer zone during the 1960s civil war in Zaydi Imamate. Al Saud sided with Yemeni loyalists when the republican government tossed away the Treaty of Taif in 1962 and Egypt lined up 70,000 troops to assist the republic against Imam Badr’s guerrilla opposition.

Throughout the 70s and 80s, North and South Yemen struggled for coexistence and peace with continuous border clashes, including a bloody civil war in the South, which John Kifner aptly referred to as MassacrewithTea, that cost thousands of souls. Eventually, after 20 years of political and military turmoil, South Yemen’s Ali Salim al-Baidh joined with the North’s Ali Abdullah Saleh to sign the unification agreement of the two states on November 30, 1989.

Yet, while Ali Abdullah Salih was being declared as the president of a unified Yemen and the country was facing an economic collapse, something worse was brewing in the heights of northern Yemen.

The Houthis and the Saudi Construct

Feeling his unique sect threatened by the Saudi-funded proselytization through Salafist preachers, Hussein Badr Eddin al-Houthi, a Zaydi scholar from Maran range established a seemingly political and revivalist movement, Ansar Allah (Supporters of God)to preserve the Zaidiyyah sect, followed by 40% of the Yemeni population, which turned into an aggressive armed insurgency in no time.

The point is that the current regional discord has centuries-old bad blood embedded in its roots. The Houthi movement, their substantial public support, and their military successes must be deconstructed from the local perspective, along with the regional one, to reach a better understanding of the conflict.

The Saudi-led coalition has been portraying Houthis just as an Iranian proxy, which is far from reality. In their annual policy paper, the Middle East Institute of Washington D.C stated that the current civil war of Yemen is entrenched in widespread public resentment over political marginalization, a paralyzed economy, and a corrupt and failed state.

Where Saudi Arabia’s policy of sectarian expansionism across the borderlands made the descendants of Zaidiyah Imamate, ousted from a centuries-long rule, feel more vulnerable, discrimination for Shia sects by Abdullah Saleh’s regime and corrupt practices tossed Yemen into a cycle of political upheaval and violence—all of which had nothing to with Iran.

The Houthis took arms against the Yemeni government six times from 2004-2010, a chapter remembered as the Saada Wars, long before Tehran came into the picture.

Civil War in Yemen

In the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring, the Houthi leader, Abdul Malik Al-Houthi, called countrywide demonstrations to end Saleh’s 33-year rule but after Saleh resigned and declared his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, the head of state in exchange of immunity, hopes rose for peace. However, Hadi, shockingly, stepped down in January 2015 and fled the country after the National Dialogue Conference failed to agree on the division of Yemen in the UN-backed transitional process and the Houthis stormed the Presidential Palace.

After the Houthis took over Sanaa in February 2015, Jamal Benomar, the UN special envoy for Yemen, went straight to Riyadh, which highlights Saudis’ concerns over the matter. On March 26, 2015, the Saudi-led coalition launched Operation Decisive Storm, with Saudi jets targeting the military compounds around the capital overnight.

The tactical inabilities of the coalition air force manifested to reality when three days later, Saudi warplanes accidentally bombed a refugee camp killing at least 40 and injuring 200. It was the beginning of one of the most horrible bombing campaigns, a disaster from a civilian and military perspective.

As civilian casualties mounted, the United States, concerned by the human cost of the conflict, urged Saudi Arabia to reach a negotiating position as soon as possible. Riyadh ended Operation Decisive Storm on 21 April, claiming the achievements, and rolled out Operation Renewal of Hope. But the truth was, the Saudis failed to deliver a considerable blow to the Houthis’ hold of the capital.

In May and June, the first reports came of mortar and Scud missile attacks by Houthis across the Saudi border. The Houthis proved tenacious and provoked Riyadh for a ground invasion, which worked out disastrously for the Saudi-led coalition. Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Sudan, and others had deployed hundreds of ground troops by the end of the year.

Although they spawned some temporary gains in forcing the Houthis out of key southern provinces, like the vital Aden seaport in July, Zinjibar, and Al-And Airbase in August, the Houthis also inflicted heavy casualties to the coalition. In just one Houthi missile attack on a weapon depot in Marib in September 2015, 45 Emirati and Five Bahraini troops were killed.

The Kuwait Talks: A Failed Attempt at Resolving the Conflict

After a year into the war with no end in sight, reports came in March 2016 of the first Houthi delegation’s visit to Saudi Arabia, led by Mohammed Abdel-Salam, the Houthis’ senior advisor and spokesperson.

Two weeks later, the UN envoy for Yemen, Mr. Ould Cheikh Ahmed, stated that talks will circumvent the withdrawal and disarmament of militias and inclusive political dialogue. Kuwait’s emir and legendary peacemaker, late Sheikh Sabah, mediated talks between the delegations of the Houthis, Abdullah Saleh, and ousted president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who had returned to coalition controlled Aden in September 2015. Riyadh kept its distance from the Kuwait talks held in April  2016.

“Saudi Arabia seeks through the Kuwait talks to exonerate itself from its aggression against Yemen and to portray said aggression as a civil Yemeni war,” accused Yahya Saleh, a former general and Saleh’s nephew, after the Kuwait talks struck a stalemate over Houthis demanding a new consensual transitional regime while Hadi’s delegation insisted on a return to the current government, an out and out surrender for Houthis.

The peace talks were formally suspended in August 2016 when Houthis announced a new ten-member governing body to replace the interim Supreme Revolutionary Council, which had run the country since February 2015. The unilateral move was immediately denounced by Saudi Arabia and the United Nations. “Houthis, as well as their supporters, are making the search for a peaceful solution more difficult,” declared the statement issued by the group of G18 ambassadors of nations that backed the UN peace talks while tens of thousands of Houthi supporters rallied through Saana to show their support for the Houthis.

In all of this, a frangible ceasefire was held throughout the year with occasional skirmishes. In October 2016, a coalition double airstrike cremated a crowded funeral hall, killing around 140 mourners, adding to the domestic and international pressure on the US to review the billion dollars arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition.

Previously, The Guardian had concluded that each one in three Saudi strikes hit civilian targets but the coalition kept sweeping all of this under the rug. The Houthis also left no stone unturned to kill any hopes of negotiations when in March 2017, a Pro-Houthi court sentenced President Hadi and six other top officials to death in absentia for high treason. This was followed by the Burkan missile attack on Mecca in July 2017, although the Houthis claimed that it was aimed at the King Fahad airbase.

The United States’ Endless Support of Saudi Arabia

In August 2017, the Middle East Eye reported an email leak between UAE’s ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, and a former high-level US diplomat, Martin Indyk, which revealed that the kingdom’s de-facto ruler, Muhammad bin Salman, wanted out of Yemen but Riyadh could not withdraw without ensuring the cross-border security.

On the other hand, in a striking development, the Houthi-Saleh split went real in December 2017 amid Saleh’s attempt to switch sides with the coalition and turned up in Houthis killing the former president of Yemen, who had been the sole ruler for more than three decades.

As 2018 unfolded, the international criticism for Saudi intervention and Washington’s role in the Yemeni chapter of war crimes plummeted. Houthis were no angels either as a UNHCR report published in Aug ‘18 noted coalition hitting civilian targets, it also documented blanket use of force on the civilian population in Houthi controlled areas.

“The group of experts is concerned by the alleged use by the Houthi­-Saleh forces of weapons with wide-area effect in a situation of urban warfare.” stated the report. It also stated that the Houthis were hitting women and children through shelling and snipers in their homes, fetching water at local wells, or traveling to seek medical attention.

On August 18, another coalition strike annihilated 40 boys, aged from six to eleven, in their school bus. As Bellingcat traced back the Mk-82 bomb, approved by the US Department of State, used in the attack to Lockheed Martin, it added to the criticism of the US’s unconditional support to the Saudi regime.

In June 2018, the Yemeni National Army backed by a Saudi-led alliance had launched an offensive to recapture the northwestern port city of Hodeidah, a significant economic hub and fourth-largest city. After six months of intense fighting, both parties agreed to a truce, total withdrawal from Hodeidah, and a “mutual understanding” in Taiz.

Blaming Iran

In January 2019, the Council of Foreign Relations and the Italian Institute of International Political Studies had listed Yemen in the Top Conflict Watch of the year. As Houthis scaled up their military capabilities, shooting down US MQ-9 reaper drone with Iranian assistance—according to CENTCOM—reports came of UAE pulling out from Aden, amid intensified tensions between the US and Iran in the Persian Gulf.

On September 14, 2019, at 3:31 to 3:42 am in morning, the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil industry and the world’s largest oil processing facilities, Abqaiq and Khurais Oil fields in eastern Saudi Arabia, were attacked by Houthi drones, shutting down half of the kingdom’s crude output.

Despite the Houthis’ taking credit for the attack and the UN’s claims regarding the Houthis acquiring long-range drones (1200-1500km) capable of hitting Riyadh, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi, the United States and Saudi Arabia asserted that the attack hadn’t stemmed from Yemen. Instead, Iran was directly behind the “unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply,” tweeted the US Secretary of State at that time, Mike Pompeo.

Tehran immediately refuted all such accusations. Despite this continuous rhetoric, US President Donald Trump’s statements had hinted that Washington would avoid any additional escalation with Iran which would have doomed global energy supplies further down the hill while markets hadn’t recovered from the previous attacks on Saudi facilities.

The Saudi-Emirati Rivalry in Yemen

On the other hand in a dramatic twist, the civil war turned multi-layered when the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) separatists seized Aden’s control from coalition-supported government forces. Few days after a joint statement was released from both Saudi and Emirati foreign ministers urging for peace talks between the Yemeni government and southern separatists, the UAE struck Hadi’s forces to aid southern separatists, killing 30 Yemeni troops as per Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

In November 2019, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia successfully struck the Riyadh agreement, between the southern separatists and the Yemeni government, which entailed power-sharing in cabinet and the military withdrawal of all forces from Aden, Abyan, and Shabwah. The landmark deal granted the absolute authority of southern Yemen to Saudi Arabia. Later in the same month, Reuters reported indirect talks in Oman between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis.

In January 2020, the Houthis claimed to seize 1,500 square miles of territory in Al-Jawf and the Marib governorate, and in March, they successfully captured the strategic city of Al Hazm. “Control of the capital of Al-Jawf could totally change the course of the war. The Houthis are changing the balance in their favor,” Majed al-Madhaji, executive director of Sanaa Centre, deciphered the situation to AFP. 

Bethan McKernan, The Guardian’s Middle East correspondent reported the same that Saudi-Emirati tussle had been dragging the conflict as Riyadh was already back channeling with Houthis through Oman while the UAE was pressing the attacks to keep the Saudi-backed Islah faction in check.

The One-sided Agreement

In April 2020, in light of the proposal sent by UN Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths, the coalition announced a unilateral ceasefire amid the globally surging COVID-19 pandemic, although the coalition forces kept violating the ceasefire with at least 106 airstrikes in just a week.

The Houthis had already called it a “ploy”, demanding the lifting of air and naval blockade of Yemen which had been depriving the population of food and medicines. It seemed like the international pressure on the coalition, and the financial strain on Al Saud was dealing with, had not gone unnoticed by those controlling most of northern Yemen.

The Houthis had released their own proposal which Elana DeLozier from the Washington Institute narrated as a “wish list”, as it had thrown all the responsibility of ceasefire on the coalition with demands of demilitarization of borders and above all, war compensations and salaries in northern Yemen for a decade, but all were non-starters for Riyadh.

The Saudis kept extending the one-sided ceasefire but things only got worse. The STC separatists withdrew from the Riyadh agreement six months after signing, announcing the establishment of self-rule in southern Yemen. The Saudi-backed Yemeni government immediately denounced the declaration while the Houthis were claiming to “liberate” 95% of the Al-Jawf governorate; this left only the Marib province in the north under the control of Hadi’s forces.

The Houthis were keenly observing and seizing the fruits of coalition infighting. Separatists moved to redirect the revenues from ports, free zones, and an oil refinery to the STC accounts as reports surfaced of the Yemeni government attacking the separatists in Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province.

A week later, the STC president, Aidarous al-Zubaidi, landed in Riyadh to talk over the deadlock that persisted between supposedly anti-Houthi allies. The Yemeni government and STC separatists agreed to a ceasefire to begin peace talks in June 2020. In December 2020 while a freshly established cabinet of coalition-backed government arrived in Yemen after agreeing to equal power-sharing, two blasts shook Aden International Airport. With cabinet members remaining safe, 22—with most being aid workers—were killed in this fatal attack.

Coalition’s Failure in Yemen

“Incompetence, lack of unified leadership, and the absence of a military strategy by the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition played into the hands of the Houthis,” stated Nadwa Al-Dawsari from the Middle East Institute. Local tribes lacked the medium-range surface-to-air ballistic missiles and other advanced weaponry on which Houthis built their tactical achievements.

The Houthi combat units constituted 20, or even fewer men, and three trucks for higher mobility to counter the constant aerial surveillance by coalition UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and the US satellites. According to Jamestown Foundation, disregard for meritocracy and skills, the weary chain of commands, and persisting corruption in Yemeni government forces due to Saudi black-cheque strategy laid the ground for coalition failures. While perpetual imprecise bombings cost thousands of civilian lives and the worst humanitarian crisis due to the air and naval blockade, the public resentment against the coalition fueled.

In the aftermath of King Abdullah’s death in January 2015, his brother Salman bin Abdulaziz ascended to rule but being 79 with speculations of dementia and Parkinson’s enabled his most ambitious son, Muhammad bin Salman, to rise as a de facto ruler of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Reportedly he is named “little general” behind his back due to his craving for respect from Washington and turning down his advisers who predicted a catastrophic outcome from an all-out Yemeni offensive, including former foreign minister Saud al-Faisal. Saudi military failure in Yemen hatched from a “panicked reaction of an inexperienced prince with too much to prove” rather than from his desire to check Iranian influence and rescue Yemen, wrote Sophia Dingli, a lecturer in international relations from the University of Hull.

Besides all this, Washington has also altered its course with Joe Biden in the Oval Office. “The war in Yemen must end,” stated President Biden in his first significant foreign policy speech. A week later, the state department repealed the Houthis’ status of Specially Designated Global Terrorist Organization(SDGT) and Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) enacted a day before Donald Trump left the Oval Office.

Saltana Begum, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) advocacy manager in Yemen, voiced that at that time “We had famine warnings where 16 million people – that’s one in two Yemenis – were close to starvation.”

Setting Terms for Peace

In June this year, the Saudi-led coalition even ceased the air raids temporarily for “preparing the political ground for a peace process in Yemen,” remarked the coalition spokesperson Turki al-Malki. The gesture came as efforts ramped up for a political settlement. The US Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking had visited Riyadh in the same month where he met several government officials along with UN Envoy Martin Griffiths.

Saudi and Houthi camps have been reportedly close to a ceasefire deal. The Houthis want the end of the blockade “without impossible conditions” before a “comprehensive ceasefire”, stated Houthi’s chief negotiator Mohammed Abdulsalam. As promising as it all might seem, and although Oman has been an excellent mediator with its impartial and carefully measured foreign policy, there are still a lot of bridges to cross and compromises to be made from both sides for a mutually beneficial post-war arrangement.

The Saudis would not just demand guarantees on border security from Oman and Iran but also a check to Iranian influence and even that won’t cater to the grievances of anti-Houthi factions battling alongside coalition forces. So, the peace process has to be inclusive for sustainable accords.

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